The Big Guns: Greta Answers Some Theologians

So what are the big guns of modern theology? And what do atheists have to say to them?

Fish in barrelI spend a fair amount of blogging time shooting down arguments for religion made by ordinary Joe and Jane Believers. As do other atheists. But many believers say this is unfair. They argue that we’re shooting fish in a barrel; that we’re arguing against stupid, simplistic, outdated versions of faith, and we’re not willing to take on serious, educated, advanced theologians.

I have a lot of responses to that point. (Most powerfully, “I don’t care that much about how a handful of theologians practice religion, I care about how religion is practiced by the overwhelming majority of believers.” Not to mention, “Why am I obligated to spend a decade studying your faith before rejecting it, when you reject thousands of other faiths with barely a second thought?“) But my mind has been set even more at ease on this question — by a surprising source.

LeestrobelOver at the Friendly Atheist blog, Hemant has been running a series of pieces by Christian apologist Lee Strobel. Yesterday’s edition addressed the question, “What questions do you want to ask atheists?” Or, “What argument is most convincing to plant the seeds of doubt (or, rather, faith) in an atheist’s mind?” Lee got some theologian friends and fellow apologists together, to collectively come up with a good- sized set of questions for atheists that they apparently feel are stumpers.

And I was shocked at how totally identical their arguments were to the ones I see every day, from ordinary Joe and Jane Believer arguing with the atheists. I was shocked at how unfamiliar many of these apologists seem to be with some of the most basic facts of current science; especially since some of that science sheds crucial light on the heart of their arguments. I was shocked — and oddly disappointed — at how familiar their questions were, how unoriginal… and how easy they were to shoot down.

Here’s what I mean.

Historian Gary Habermas: Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus’ resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself.

Conversión_de_San_PabloThese historical facts are: (1) Jesus was killed by crucifixion; (2) Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; (3) The conversion of the church persecutor Saul, who became the Apostle Paul; (4) the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother; (5) The empty tomb of Jesus. These “minimal facts” are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn’t have quite the same virtual universal consensus, it nevertheless is conceded by 75 percent of the scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.

First: You’re assuming one of the major things you’re trying to prove — namely, that the historial Jesus lived, and that the New Testament is an accurate description of his life and the events that followed it. Contrary to your assertion, these are questions about which there are serious scholarly doubts. Given the internal contradictions within the New Testament; the lack of corroboration of the major events described in the Gospels by contemporary historians of the time; and the fact that the New Testament was written decades after the events it supposedly describes, by people were themselves convinced of Jesus’s divinity and who wrote the books with the express purpose of recruiting others into the faith… none of that adds up to the New Testament being a reliable source. I see no reason to accept your “facts” as a given.

Heavens gate cultSecond: Even if I did concede the accuracy of these events… so what? Re #1-4: The followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult were convinced, too. Convinced enough to die for their beliefs. As were the followers of Jim Jones, and Charles Manson, and so on. History is littered with true believers who believed utterly wacky things, and believed them whole-heartedly — enough to devote their lives, and even sacrifice them, to their beliefs. The supposed conviction of the apostles proves exactly nothing.

As to #5: Again, so what? The “empty tomb” thing doesn’t require a paranormal explanation. Even if it happened — which again, I don’t remotely concede — there could be any number of natural explanations for it (the body was stolen, hidden, etc.)… explanations that don’t require a supernatural entity. Any competent stage magician could manage it.

Philosopher Paul Copan: Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?

No.

PuddleYou’re making what I call the “puddle fallacy” (an idea stolen from Douglas Adams). A mysteriously conscious puddle says to itself, “This is an amazing hole I find myself in, it fits me perfectly — it must have been designed to have me in it!” No. The hole wasn’t made for the puddle; the puddle formed to fit into the available hole. And the same is true for life in the universe. Life developed because conditions in the universe allowed it to happen. If that hadn’t happened, something else would have happened instead… something equally astronomically unlikely. We just wouldn’t be here to see it.

An analogy: The chances that I, personally, was born, out of the billions of children my parents could have had, and the billions of children their parents could have had, and so on… it’s beyond astronomical. Does that mean I was fated to exist? Of course not. I’m sitting here rolling a die ten times, and it came up with the sequence 4632236245. The odds against that sequence are over 60 billion million to one. That doesn’t mean it was designed, or fated… or even that we need to come up with a special philosophy to explain it.

Big bangAnd very importantly, as I’ve written elsewhere: The universe isn’t actually all that finely-tuned for life. What with the length of time it took for Earth to come into being after the Big Bang, and the eventual explosion of the sun, and the ultimate heat-death of the universe, and all that, the window for life on Earth is, in cosmic terms, actually pretty darned short.

Paul Copan again: And, second, granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don’t such “injustices” or “evils” seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?

No.

Touch of evilA growing body of evidence suggests that good and evil are concepts that are hard-wired into our brains by evolution. Humans are a social species, and humans that behaved morally were more likely to be socially successful and thus survive and reproduce; humans that didn’t were less likely to win the Darwinian Sweepstakes. (This also explains why evil continues, something Christianity utterly fails to do: most people succeed evolutionarily by being more or less good, but some people will always flourish by being bad and getting away with it.) The existence of morality doesn’t require a supernatural explanation. Evolution and neuropsychology explain it quite nicely.

(BTW: The problem of evil isn’t “the major objection to belief in God.” It’s one major objection to belief in one particular god [albeit a common one]: the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god of Christian theology. Your god isn’t the only one we don’t believe in.)

Talk show host Frank Pastore: Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from non-life, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source.

Ah, yes. The God of the gaps.

SlashCircle.svgLet’s take these one as a time before we get to the big picture. Something from nothing: We don’t know that yet. That’s one of the great scientific questions of our time. (Many scientists who are working on it suspect that the answer may make us radically re-think how we conceive of time and cause/effect: the way Darwin made us radically rethink life, and Einstein made us radically rethink space and time.)

But the God hypothesis doesn’t answer that question, either. The God hypothesis merely begs it. How could God either have always existed or have come into being out of nothingness? If you’re going to hypothesize that something had to have either always existed or come into being from nothingness, why does that something have to be God? Why can’t it be the universe? (And don’t say “Because God is magic.” That’s a terrible answer.)

Life from non-life: This one’s easy. Life is a bio- chemical process. It came into being from a proto- bio- chemical process, which came into being from a regular chemical process. There’s nothing all that mysterious about the concept; it’s just physical cause and effect. Scientists think they’ll be able to replicate that process within a few years.

ThinkingMind from brain: Another one we don’t know yet. The science of neuropsychology is in its infancy, and the question of what exactly consciousness is and how it works is, IMO, one of the other great scientific questions of our time.

But again, this is a question that religion merely begs rather than answering. If there is a non-corporeal soul, how does it interact with the brain and make it do its bidding? How does a non- material entity affect the material world? And if the self is essentially not physical, how and why do changes in the brain affect the soul?

BrainAnd much more to the point: No, we don’t know yet how exactly the brain produces the mind. But the overwhelming body of evidence is that it does. Changes to the brain, from injury or surgery or illness or medication, produce changes in the mind, in fairly predictable ways. (As Bertrand Russell argued: Given that damage to any part of the brain will destroy that part of the mind and self — destroying the vision center makes you blind, destroying the language center makes you unable to speak or comprehend language, etc. — it logically follows that destroying the entire brain destroys the entire mind and self.) And using magnetic resonance imaging and other new technology, we can now see thoughts appearing in the brain as they happen. As far as we can tell by all the available evidence, whatever the mind is, it seems to be a product of the brain.

How our moral senses developed from an amoral source: See above, re: the evolution of human morality.

Watch the gapYour arguments are what we atheists call the God of the Gaps. Whatever phenomena are currently unexplained by science, whatever gaps there are in our understanding of the universe, those get to be explained by God. And when the science fills in a gap, religion finds another gap.

But as the gaps in our understanding shrink, God shrinks along with it.

Author Greg Koukl: Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?

See above. It’s currently an unanswered question… but the God hypothesis doesn’t answer the question, either. It merely begs it.

As to why I think a physical answer is more likely to be correct than a metaphysical one (and all my regular readers are now cringing, because I’m about to make an argument I’ve made approximately 712,522 times before in this blog — I’ll be done with it here soon, I promise):

Earth_axisBecause it always has been. Because in all of human history, unanswered questions have turned out to have natural answers thousands upon thousands upon thousands of times… and have turned out to have supernatural answers exactly never. None. Nada. Zilch. The history of human knowledge about the universe is the history of natural explanations replacing supernatual ones: consistently, relentlessly, like a steamroller.

Given that history, why on earth would I think that these two particular currently unexplained phenomena will eventually be explained by God? Why would that be the reasonable bet?

Lee Strobel summarizing philosopher Alvin Plantinga: If our cognitive faculties were selected for survival, not for truth, then how can we have any confidence, for example, that our beliefs about the reality of physical objects are true or that naturalism itself is true? (By contrast, theism says God has designed our cognitive faculties in such a way that, when functioning properly in an appropriate environment, they deliver true beliefs about the world.)

NIA_human_brain_drawingWell, for one thing: I don’t see how the God hypothesis answers that problem at all. If our senses and cognitive faculties can deceive us, then why should we trust that God isn’t deceiving us? In fact, it seems much more plausible that an all-powerful magical God could fool us than the physical senses that evolved in response to the physical world.

I mean: If God were real and created our minds to “deliver true beliefs about the world”… why would we even be having this conversation? Wouldn’t we all perceive him, in exactly the same way? Why would anybody disagree about religion? In fact, why would anybody disagree about anything? Either God created us with perfect minds — which is patently untrue — or God is deceiving us… which undercuts your whole argument.

And if our cognitive faculties are flawed by the shaping of evolution… then what makes you think a belief in God isn’t one of those cognitive flaws?

In any case: Science and naturalism don’t, in fact, assume that our perceptions and cognitive faculties are always correct.

Mistakes_were_madeIn fact, we know that they aren’t. We know, for instance, that our minds tend to: see patterns and intentions even when they don’t exist; amplify evidence that supports what we believe, and reject evidence that undercuts it; rationalize decisions we’ve made, even when they’re clearly mistaken or harmful; etc. (All of which atheists consider very strong arguments against religion, not for it. See above, re: religion itself being one of our biggest cognitive flaws.)

Yes, our cognitive faculties are flawed. That’s why, when we’re trying to understand the universe, we don’t just rely on our intuition and perception and personal thought processes. That’s why we rigorously use the scientific method. We do it to filter out errors and biases in our perception and our judgment, as much as is humanly possible. It’s imperfect, to be sure; but over time, it’s proven astonishingly powerful.

In a naturalist worldview, we know that our perceptions and cognitive faculties are flawed. But we also have every reason to assume that they bear some connection to reality. It makes no evolutionary sense for our perceptions to be entirely disconnected from reality. We wouldn’t have survived and evolved if we hunted for rabbits that didn’t exist, or failed to run from tigers that really were there but that we didn’t see. And we wouldn’t be able to predict and shape the world, to the mind- boggling degree that the scientific method has allowed us to do, if our senses and cognitive faculties didn’t reflect reality at all.

Shadow_of_a_doubtHistorian Mike Licona: Irrespective of one’s worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?

Yes. Sometimes. Whenever I see a theist making an argument for God, I always have a brief moment of wondering, “Will this be the good argument? The solid evidence? Will this be the thing that finally convinces me?”

But this happens a lot less than it used to. Those brief moments are getting briefer. And frankly — this is going to sound snarky, and I’m sorry for that — it happens less because I see the same bad arguments again and again.

Including here.

Every single one of these arguments in this post is an argument I’ve seen before. Evidence from the Bible. The supposed conviction of the apostles, and the empty tomb. The first cause argument. The supposed fine-tuning of the world and the universe for life. The god of the gaps. What is reality, and how can you trust your perceptions. I’ve seen them all. Dozens of times. I can rebut them in my sleep. (None of these apologists cited personal intuition and experience, and good on them for not doing that… but I bet dollars to donuts that if this debate were pursued, that argument would eventually get rolled out as well. It always does.)

And frankly, when I have doubts, they are rarely about whether religion is correct. The fact that I’ve seen so many theistic arguments, and they’ve always been the same few bad arguments over and over again, has done more to bolster my opinion that religion is mistaken than anything any atheist has ever said.

GravestoneMy doubts are not about whether religion is correct, but whether it would be pleasant. There are times when I feel small and trivial on the cosmic scale, or get scared about death, or frustrated at injustice (I hate that Ken Lay died of a heart attack before we could dump him in prison), and wish for an eternal afterlife where I could be with my loved ones forever and where prosperous jerks could finally suffer. (Not Hell. Hell is one of the most evil concepts humanity has come up with. But something like Purgatory… that I’d be okay with.)

But most of the time, I don’t wish for a God. Most of the time, I’m happy about the world just being the natural, physical world, and I have no trouble accepting it. The God hypothesis provides some comforts… but it also provides horrors. (Among other things: Yes, I have to live in a world with no loving fatherly creator to care if I live or die… but I also don’t have to wonder why our loving fatherly creator is torturing children.) And the naturalist worldview provides many comforts and hopes that theism utterly fails to provide.

PonyAnd even if I did sincerely wish for there to be a God… wishful thinking isn’t an argument. I wish I had a million- dollar book contract, too. And a pony. But I’m not going to live my life as if those things were true.

Sorry, theologians. I remain unconvinced. I am more than a little shocked at how unfamiliar these apologists seem to be with some of the most basic pieces of current scientific knowledge. And frankly, I’m a bit disappointed in how weak and unoriginal these arguments are. I’d expected this to be more of a challenge.

Faint Praise: “Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships”

This review was originally written for Alt.com

Opening upOpening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships
by Tristan Taormino
Cleis Press. ISBN 978-1-57344-295-4. $16.95.

I’ve been waiting a long time for this book.

For many years, the bible of open relationships, the comprehensive “non- monogamy 101″ text that got recommended to everyone, was “The Ethical Slut.” But I had real problems with “Ethical Slut.” I thought it was more or less fine, but I definitely found it too focused on taking care of yourself, and not focused enough on caring for your partners. (Especially for a book with “Ethical” in the title.) And while I did recommend it to people, I always hedged my bets when I did.

So I was very excited indeed when I saw Tristan Taormino’s new book, “Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships.” And even before I cracked it open, I was ready, perfumed pen in hand, to praise it to the skies.

Now that I’ve actually read it, here’s what I have to say:

It’s fine.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise — you’re right. It is. And I’ll explain that in a moment.

PolyamoryBut I do have genuine praise for this book, and I want to make that clear up front. “Opening Up” is a solid, insanely thorough guide to non- monogamous and polyamorous relationships. It covers a wide variety of different kinds of open relationships, with extensive discussions of the possible options and arrangements, pitfalls and solutions, that come with each. It provides a solid foundation for newcomers to these kinds of relationships, and offers interesting new options to folks who are already doing it. And it doesn’t have the big failing I found in “The Ethical Slut.” The need to be considerate of other people while still taking care of yourself permeates this book. And I greatly appreciated that.

I have a few quibbles with a few of the author’s ideas and choices. (I was, for instance, annoyed that she illustrated the “changing from being primary to non-primary partner” situation with such a utopian example.) But none were deal- breakers, and I don’t feel a compelling need to detail them here. If you want to find out how open relationships work, get some guidance on figuring out whether they might be for you, and learn some road-tested ways to manage them, then this is a fine book. The information is good, it’s solid, it’s useful, and it’s thorough.

I know, I know. Damning with faint praise. So I’ll just get to it: my big critique of the book, the thing that’s keeping me from lavishing it with unqualified praise.

It’s not very well written.

And I found that to be a serious problem — not just for readability, but for actual content.

Venn_diagram_cmykThe main problem with “Opening Up” is that it’s way, way too abstract. There are pages and pages of unbroken therapy- speak about communication and boundaries and owning your own feelings. After a while, it got to be like a not- very- funny satire of a very bad therapist. And there’s far too little in the way of specific examples, details of particular arrangements and options and possible solutions to problems.

Example. On the problem of envy:

“When you are content with who you are and feel secure and satisfied in your relationship, it greatly lessens your envy of others. Work on yourself and your relationships rather than being preoccupied by others around you. Value yourself and be grateful for what you have. If you see something in someone else or in their relationship that you really want, take steps to get it by changing something about yourself or your relationship. Otherwise, it’s best to work on your own self-worth and insecurities to lessen or eliminate the envy.” (p. 157)

This isn’t enormously useful. It makes it hard to get a handle on how — exactly, specifically — you might make an arrangement that deals with your envy and makes your open relationship work for you. Plus it makes for a rather tedious read. Especially when it goes on for pages.

And it can feel rather dismissive. When a relationship guide advises people to deal with painful, difficult feelings by basically saying “try to stop feeling that way”… it’s not the most helpful advice on Loki’s green earth. If we could just change how we felt about things, we wouldn’t need guidebooks on relationships.

This isn’t universally true everywhere in the book. There are practical pointers and concrete ideas sprinkled throughout, and they’re solid and helpful. But there aren’t nearly enough.

Quotation marksI was stewing about this to my wife, and she kept asking, “Aren’t there any interviews or quotes from real non-monogamous people, to bring it back down to earth?” Yes, there are. Taormino talked to over 100 people for this book, and interviews and quotes abound. But more often than not, they don’t bring it back down to earth. The interviews and quotes are all too often in the same vague, abstract, therapy-speak vein as the rest of the book. Again, this isn’t universally true — there are some good stories with entertaining and informative details. But again, there aren’t nearly enough.

Plus…

I don’t know how to say this in a way that isn’t catty. So I’m just going to say it: The writing is flat. It doesn’t have elegant, formal grace; or fervent, fiery passion; or a friendly, chatty, invitingly casual tone. And it has almost no humor at all. The style is — well, style-less. The book talks at length about the joy and liberation and abundant love available in open relationships… but it doesn’t convey it. The enthusiasm is something less than infectious.

All of which adds up to a bad equation: a book that somehow manages to be both idealistic and uninspiring. It’s kind of a neat trick, actually. “Opening Up” makes open relationships seem like a theory, an unattainably utopian castle in the air… AND like a tedious, drudge-like chore, a life of endless, mind-numbing processing punctuated with occasional sex. Both at the same time.

And that ain’t right.

CanonLet me put it this way. When I was in the middle of reading “Opening Up,” I picked up a copy of “The Canon,” Natalie Angier’s book explaining the most important basic principles of the scientific canon to the non-scientist layperson. And once I picked it up, I never wanted to put it down. I wanted to be reading it every waking moment. And I found myself getting increasingly resentful of the fact that I had to set it aside and get back to “Opening Up” because I was on deadline for this review.

Now. Admittedly, “The Canon” is an exceptional book, highly acclaimed far and wide. And admittedly, I am a giant nerd. But still. I should not be more excited to read about covalent bonds and plate tectonics than about the ins and outs of multiple relationships. I should not be putting down the science book with dreamy, poignant longing… and picking up the book on boinking lots of different people with a sigh of dutiful obligation. That is just wrong.

Do get the book. Really. It’s fine. It has good, solid, useful, thorough information, and if you want some guidance about navigating open relationships, I’m sure it will be quite helpful. I just wish I could be more excited about it.

(Conflict of interest alert: I work for a company, Last Gasp, that sells this book.)

Sex, Relationships, and the Hazards of Default Decisions

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Lucy the psychiatristI once had a therapist — a sort of lousy therapist — who I was seeing when I was starting to question my long-established singledom and consider looking for a relationship again. I told her about a huge revelation I’d had: the revelation that many of the things about coupledom I was resisting weren’t problems with coupledom per se, but problems I had with living together.

It was a huge, liberating flash of insight for me. I’d been automatically linking “romantic love” with “cohabiting,” and I didn’t have to… and I could therefore pursue the one even though I was highly dubious about the other. Neat.

And the first words out of my therapist’s mouth?

“Or you could change your mind about that!”

Talk about a buzz-kill. The idea that you could have a serious love relationship without sharing an address? The idea that romance and sex didn’t have to follow an invisible checklist of progress? The idea that a romantic relationship could be a series of separate choices instead of a giant package deal? She wasn’t interested in discussing that.

I want to talk about how people make decisions about sex and relationships. Specifically, I want to talk about the unsettling frequency with which major decisions about sex and relationships get made by default.

Decisions that get made because that’s what’s next. Because that’s what everyone else is doing. Because that’s just what’s done. (Or not done.)

Time tableThe timetable is the most obvious example. There seems to be this rough timetable that Americans base their sex and love lives on: a timetable that rarely gets spelled out but that everyone seems to know about. It varies somewhat between different regions and communities (sex tends to happen faster in progressive urban areas, marriage is more likely to precede sex in conservative rural towns). But even between those regions there’s a remarkable similarity… and within the regions, there’s a expectation of homogeneity that’s rather startling.

When you first have sex. When you make the decision about whether the relationship is serious. When you move in together. When you merge your finances. When you get married. When you have kids. Think about it. How much variety is there in your circle about when these things happen? And when people do step outside the standard timetable, how do other people react to it?

In my experience, there’s surprisingly little variety in the timetable. And when people step outside of it, they’re often met with surprise and bafflement at best, disapproval at worst. If you move faster than the timetable (having sex on the first date, say), you’re “rushing things”; if you move slower than the timetable, you’re “dragging your feet.”

MoversHere’s an example from my own life. Ingrid and I didn’t move in together until seven years into our relationship. In fact, the first time we got married (in the San Francisco City Hall same-sex weddings of 2004, the ones that got annulled), we weren’t living together. And while nobody burned us at the stake for it, we were definitely met with a fair amount of puzzlement. We didn’t get disapproval, exactly, but we got a certain amount of disapproval’s more polite half-brother — concern. And we got a lot of disapproval’s slightly slow-witted cousin — confusion. The amount of explaining we had to do about why we weren’t living together and why we had no immediate plans to live together… it makes me tired just remembering it.

But for us, moving in together was too big a decision to make just so we could cross it off the checklist. For us, moving in together was something to do because, well, we wanted to do it and felt it was right for us… not because That’s What Comes Next.

Especially since, for the first several years of our relationship, the question of moving in together wasn’t a “When?” but a “Whether?”

See, default decisions about sex and relationships don’t just get made based on the timetable. Default decisions aren’t just made about “When?” They get made about “Whether?” as well.

Bride and groomNot just when to move in together — but whether to move in together. Not just when to get married — but whether to get married. Not just when to have kids — but whether to have kids. It’s astonishing to me how many people just assume that this is the path a relationship has to take, and if they want love and sex in their lives they better get cracking.

And there’s more. What kind of sex to have. How often to have sex. Whether to have a joint checking account. (We recently had friends act as though we were space aliens because we still have our own checking accounts. Yes, we have a joint account, for bills and other joint expenses… but we each have our own money as well. And that works really well for us.) Whether to travel together, or sleep together. (Couples who take separate vacations or sleep in separate beds apparently get as much bafflement/ concern/ flak as couples who don’t move in together.)

Whether to be monogamous. That’s a huge one. The assumption that of course a long-term couple is going to be monogamous is a deep and pervasive one. Most people don’t even discuss it.

Even whether to get into a serious relationship at all. I was single for twelve years before Ingrid and I fell in love. And for about ten of those twelve years, my singlehood was a conscious, positive choice. And if you think you’ll be met with disapproval and baffled concern if you don’t move in with your sweetie, imagine the disapproval and baffled concern you get when you tell people you’re not interested in having a sweetie, period.

But here’s the thing.

These decisions? They’re too big — and too personal — to be making by default.

Cartoon guide to sexIf we know anything at all about human sex and human sexual relationships, it’s that the only constant is variety. Human beings have an almost infinite variety of sexual and emotional experiences: an eye-popping smorgasbord of feelings and desires, prejudices and preferences, turn-offs and needs. And we should be tailoring our decisions about sex to fit our individual experiences. We should not be forcing our sexual and romantic decisions into a one- size- fits- all garment… one which, like most one- size- fits- all garments, really fits only a handful of people.

Sex and relationships should be like a walk in the woods, where you pick the trails that suit your interest and stamina. They should be like a trip to the market, where you buy the vegetables that you need for your recipe. They should not be like an express train — where the track is laid out ahead of time, and everyone has to get off at the same stops.

P.S. Just for the record: I do understand that, in some specific sets of circumstances, there is a genuine timetable, not a made-up social one. I understand that people who want kids — especially women who want kids — can’t wait indefinitely. My point is that this in itself should be a set of decisions that’s made consciously (“I very much want kids, I’d rather not be a single parent, therefore I need to keep an eye on my biological clock when I’m considering my romantic life”), instead of being made by default (“Kids should happen by the time I’m 35, so I should be married no later than 30, so now that I’m 27 I should stop dating people who aren’t serious about marriage”).

Atheism, Stripping, and More: Greta on “Feast of Fools” Radio

Feast of foolsI’m on the radio!

Okay, Internet radio. But hey, this is the 21st century, and Internet radio is the new black.

The “Feast of Fools” podcast is a daily talk show hosted by Fausto Fernos and Marc Felion featuring celebrity guests, artists, musicians, actors and members of the GLBT community; a roundtable discussion of unusual news, social trends and features cocktail recipes and interviews. They recently interviewed me, in a funny, lively conversation that goes all over the map: from atheist philosophy, to religion in the LGBT community, to how to hire a sex worker.

Which I guess means I’m a “celebrity” now. News to me, but I’m not complaining. When do I get to be a judge on Project Runway?

Anyway. The podcast is titled Living Without Religion, and it’s past of Feast of Fools’ Gay Fun Show series. Come listen to me gab!

Sex — The Great Exception: The Blowfish Blog

Gay-leather-cuirI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It asks a question I’ve been asking myself for a long time: Why is sex always the exception?

Why is sex the exception to laws about free speech? Why is it okay for a Supreme Court Justice to say he can’t define obscenity but he knows it when he sees it… when he wouldn’t in a million years say that he can’t define treason, or separation of church and state, but he knows it when he sees it? Why does our culture have a basic (if grudging) respect for differing tastes in music and movies and home decor… but little to no respect for differing tastes in sex?

It’s called Sex — The Great Exception, and here’s the teaser:

Why is sex an exception?

The principle of free speech is interpreted pretty darned broadly in the U.S. But there are exceptions. There are exceptions for false advertising. For violating copyright. For slander and libel. For revealing state secrets. And for talking about sex.

In other words: Sex is seen as being in a category with fraud, theft, character defamation, and treason.

Why?

What — if you’ll excuse my language — the fuck?

The whole idea of “community standards” for obscenity is another perfect example of this principle. Think about it. We don’t allow communities to set standards for any other area of expression. We don’t allow communities to set standards for expression of political opinions or religious beliefs; for musical genres or styles of poetry. But the idea that a community should be able to set its own standards for sexual expression: this, for some reason, is seen as totally normal and entirely reasonable.

To find out more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

On Being an Atheist Watching the Inauguration

Obama hopeYes. Okay. Pride; hope; history; immense joy; inexpressible relief.

Yes. Sure. Absolutely.

But also this.

I was watching the Inauguration, with pride and hope and history and joy and relief. And the message I kept hearing was, “We are one country. This country belongs to everybody in it. Everybody has a voice. Everybody has a part to play. Everybody’s experience matters.

“Everybody — except you.

“Everybody except you and the roughly 15% of Americans who don’t believe in God.

“Not you. You’re not part of this. This isn’t for you.”

Yes, yes, I know. I know what you’re about to say. Yes, Obama said the word “non-believers” in his speech. He said, quote:

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.”

And yes, that was pretty neat. As far as I know (does anyone know for sure?), this was the first time that a President’s inaugural address said anything about non-believers in a positive, inclusive way. I’m not going to underestimate that. He said it, and it was pretty darned cool. A milestone, even.

He said it once… in a speech, one of a series of speeches over the inaugural ceremony, that over and over again hammered home the message, “This is God’s country.”

Rick warrenFrom Rick Warren’s icky opening invocation:

“Almighty God, our father, everything we see and everything we can’t see exists because of you alone. It all comes from you, it all belongs to you. It all exists for your glory. History is your story.

“The Scripture tells us Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one. And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made.”

and:

“…when we forget you [God], forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us.”

and:

“I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus, Jesus (hay-SOOS), who taught us to pray, Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

SignDo I need to point out what’s wrong with this? Do I need to point out how grotesquely inappropriate it is — in a massive and public government ceremony, addressed both to and on behalf of a secular nation populated by people of many faiths and many people of no faith — to assert that everything that happens comes from God and belongs to him? To assert that there’s something wrong/ needing of forgiveness about “forgetting” God and claiming our achievements for ourselves? To not only invoke a prayer on behalf of the whole country, but to do so in a specific prayer that comes from his particular religious tradition, in the name of his particular god?

Ew.

Rev joseph loweryOkay. Moving on. We have the closing benediction from Rev. Joseph Lowery. A much, much better speech than Warren’s, and one which, when you take the God stuff out of it, I have little to argue with and a tremendous amount to be inspired by. But we still have this:

“Thou, who has by thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever on the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
Lest, our heart drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand
True to thee, O God, and true to our native land.”

and:

“We pray now, oh Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States…”

and:

“We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th President…”

and:

“Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.”

Gods handSo again, we have the message: It’s God who directs us towards goodness. It’s really bad to “forget” that. We — as a country — should stand true to God.

(Yes, I know that those words are from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song considered to be the Negro National Anthem, with an important and powerful history in the African American community and the civil rights movement. I get the value and meaning of using this song in the inaugural ceremony. But there are plenty of other lyrics from this song that don’t frame the United States as a Christian nation, and that don’t chastise non-believers for their non-belief.)

Plus we have the unsettling notion that Obama is God’s servant. Sorry, but no. Obama is our servant. Yours, mine, ours. He is the public servant of the people of the United States of America. It is to us, and to the Constitution, that he owes his allegiance. Not to God.

And plus we have the very unsettling message that “we” includes people who go to churches, temples, and mosques, people who seek God’s will in an assortment of places… but “we” does not include people who don’t seek God’s will at all. “We the people” does not include people who don’t believe in God.

Obama inaugurationAnd then. Most importantly. From Obama’s own Inaugural address:

“…the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

and:

“This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

and:

“…and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

No.

No, no, no.

The promise of equality and freedom and opportunity was not given to me by God. My confidence is not given to me by God. God’s grace is not upon me.

No.

Finally, of course, the enormous elephant in the room:

Duerer-PrayerWe have the very fact that this inauguration was opened and closed with a prayer. The fact that Sunday’s inaugural concert was opened with a prayer. The fact that the oath of office was sworn on a Bible, and concluded — unrequired by the Constitution — with the words, “So help me God.” The fact of the insistent repetition of the phrases “God bless you” and “God bless the United States.” The fact that God was all over this inauguration like a cheap suit; the examples I’ve cited here, while the most egregious, were really just a drop in the bucket.

Completely regardless of the content of these prayers and invocations, we have the unquestioned assumption that religion and prayers and repeated references to God and faith should have a significant part — indeed, any part whatsoever — in the ceremonies of our government. We have the unquestioned assumption that the prayers of a church belong in the single most important ceremony of our state.

Look. You can’t spend all day talking about how God’s grace is upon the nation, and how everything that happens comes from God, and how equality and freedom and opportunity are promised to us by God, and how the elected leader of a democratic country is God’s servant, and how forgetting God is a sin that requires forgiveness — and then mention once that some of the people making up the strong patchwork of this country are non-believers — and call that real inclusivity and recognition of non-believers.

Any more than you can spend all day talking about how same- sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry, and non- discrimination laws shouldn’t be expanded to cover sexual orientation, and LGBT people shouldn’t be allowed to serve in the military — and then say, “Oh, no, I’m not homophobic.”

Am I being churlish?

Dont worry be happyShould I just be happy about the mention of non-believers? Should I just be happy about this little baby step towards full recognition of atheists as actual citizens of this country, citizens with the same rights and responsibilities, the same expectation of respect and passion to contribute, that everyone else in this country has?

Maybe. For the record: I am thrilled that Obama is President. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Thrilled. I’m thrilled because I care about torture, and global warming, and the economy, and the war, and education, and science, and our standing in the world at large. I’m thrilled because I care about our country’s history and future, and I’m awestruck at what Obama’s election means about who we’ve become and what we can be. And I am thrilled because I care about secularism; because Obama is a Constitutional scholar, and I think he has potential to be one of the best advocates for secularism and separation of church and state that the White House has seen.

But I am done with this. I am done with repeated references to God and religion in official government events.

I’m not just done with it because this is supposed to be a secular, non- sectarian country, founded on (among other things) the idea of the separation of church and state. I’m not just done with it because I think the very presence of religion in politics makes for a toxic mess, with policy debates based not on observable evidence, but on unsubstantiated dogma.

No atheists usaI’m done with it because, when Presidents and other official representatives of our country and our government insist that this is God’s country, the implicit — if unintentional — message is that, if you don’t believe in God, this is not your country.

Screw that.

This is my country, too.

Dream diary, 1/21/09: Doctor Biden’s housecall

Joe bidenI dreamed that Joe Biden was my doctor, and was making a housecall at my office. I was having narcolepsy and dizzy spells: he said we could treat it with aggressive medication, but he thought the problem might just be sleep deprivation, and suggested I take a nap. He also thought the problem might be too much wax in my ears. When he left, my co-workers all thought I had cancer, because everyone knew Biden had been an oncologist before he became a Senator.

A Nation Breathes a Sigh of Relief

Obama-hopeYes, pride. Yes, hope. Yes, a feeling of giddy excitement. Yes, a powerful sense of the immense historical nature of the occasion.

But what I’m mostly feeling — what I think a lot of people are feeling — is an overwhelming sense of relief.

I feel like I’ve been holding my breath and gritting my teeth for the last eight years. I feel like I’ve been on a bus on a precarious mountain highway, being driven much too fast by a grinning idiot who’s not watching the road, who keeps looking back over his shoulder to chat and crack jokes with the passengers… most of whom, like me, have been gripping the seat in front of them with white knuckles, eyes either shut tight against the horror or wide open in frozen panic, as the bus careens ever closer to the cliff’s edge.

And I feel like the bus has finally, finally ground to a halt to change drivers.

And the driver who’s getting on looks like he takes his job seriously and knows how to drive.

I am under no illusions about Barack Obama. (Well, hardly any illusions.) I don’t think he’s the second coming of Christ, or even of Abraham Lincoln. My best hope is that he’ll be the second coming of FDR; my worst fear is that he’ll be a mutant hybrid of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

But the bus is no longer being driven by a reckless, delusional moron. The bus is being driven by someone who, whatever else you may think of him, obviously cares whether we live or die.

And I am breathing an immense, overjoyed sigh of relief.

Bye-bye, Bush. See you at the war crimes trial. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

Conspiracies and Unshakeable Faith: What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? Part 2

What is it about conspiracy theories that’s so problematic?

Manson familyI mean, it’s not as if conspiracies don’t happen. The Mafia is a conspiracy. The Manson murders were a conspiracy. The Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway was a conspiracy. Two people getting together to buy an ounce of weed is a conspiracy. It’s not like it never happens that two or more people get together to break the law. Obviously it does. It’s probably happening right now, in hundreds or thousands of places around the country.

So it’s not as if it’s completely wacky to think that conspiracies might happen.

All_the_President's_MenAnd big conspiracies among powerful people happen as well. Watergate was a conspiracy. Iran/ Contra was a conspiracy. The history of Chicago politics is loaded with conspiracies. The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy. I could go on and on.

So it’s not as if it’s completely wacky to think that conspiracies might happen among powerful people in government or business. The history of the world is littered with well- documented instances of conspiracies, both large and small, by the puny and the powerful.

So what is it about conspiracy theories that’s so aggravating?

Why are they typically as stubbornly irrational, as resistant to evidence and argument, as the most extreme varieties of religious faith?

I’ve been thinking about this. And I realized something.

Your typical conspiracy theory shares a very irritating quality with your typical religious belief: There is literally no possible piece of evidence that could convince the believer that they’re mistaken.

FaithAs I’ve written before — or rather, as I’ve stolen outright from Ebonmuse before — a defining feature of religious belief seems to be that, when asked the question, “What would convince you that you were wrong?”, the answer is almost always, “Nothing. Nothing would make me lose faith in my god. That’s what it means to have faith.” It’s one of the things that makes debating with believers aggravating: many believers will begin a debate thinking that their belief is based on sound reasoning and evidence, but by the end of the debate, they typically wind up saying some version of, “I feel it in my heart,” or, “Well, that’s just what I believe.”

And I see much the same thing with conspiracy theories.

AmericanCancerSocietyAny argument that you make against a particular conspiracy theory — any piece of evidence that counters it, any line of reasoning about whether it makes sense, any questions about whether it’s even plausible — will almost inevitably be met with an assortment of maddeningly unfalsifiable retorts. “That evidence was manufactured.” “The conspirators are exceptionally good at secrecy and at hiding evidence of the truth.” “The media’s in on the conspiracy.” (As is anybody at all who objects to the conspiracy or provides evidence against it, from NASA to the American Cancer Society.) And, of course, the ever-popular, “Or have they gotten to you, too?”

But, of course — as I and countless other atheist writers have pointed out when talking about religion — if a theory or a belief can’t possibly be falsified, if there is no possible evidence imaginable that could prove it wrong, then it’s not a useful theory. It has no power to explain the past, or to predict the future.

And when you start looking at it this way, you realize that conspiracy theories have a lot in common with the more irrational aspects of religious belief.

NutmegThere’s the fact that conspiracy theories tend to be based, not on direct positive evidence, but on what seem to be suspicious patterns. The problem with that, of course, being that our brains are hard-wired by evolution to see patterns even where none exist… and we can find conspiratorial patterns pretty much anywhere we look. (“How likely is it that every single store in our neighborhood would be out of nutmeg? That can’t possibly be a coincidence!”)

There’s the fact that conspiracy theories tend to be based on the assumption that there must be intention behind every phenomenon. Another logical fallacy hard- wired into our brains for very good evolutionary reasons… and another logical fallacy shared by religion.

Flying_Spaghetti_MonsterAnd there’s the fact that conspiracy theories are often bolstered by the “You can’t prove it didn’t happen” argument. Currently my least favorite piece of rhetorical stupid floating around the Interweb. As if every single proposition that can’t be disproven with 100% certainty, from Zeus the Thunder God to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, deserves to be taken seriously.

JFKI have other problems with conspiracy theories, too. I’m particularly entertained/ exasperated by just how huge many of these supposed conspiracies are, and just how many people would have to be in on the secret… completely ignoring how lousy most people are at keeping secrets. (The conspiracy delineated in the movie “JFK” is my favorite example; the one which, if it were true, would have required both the involvement and the silence of approximately one fifth of the American population.)

But my biggest problem really is this: If nothing at all could convince you that your theory is wrong… then what you have on your hands there is a truly lousy theory. In fact, it’s not really a theory at all. It’s an article of faith: unshakeable, irrational, unconnected with reality.

So with people who believe that 9-11 was a conspiracy on the part of the U.S. government (as opposed to a conspiracy on the part of, oh, say, Al-Qaeda); that vaccines are a conspiracy to keep the drug companies rich; that the medical profession knows about a cure for (cancer, AIDS, achy breaky heart) but is in a conspiracy to keep it a secret… I want to ask the same question I want to ask religious believers:

“What would convince you that you were wrong?”

Not just “What evidence do you have that you’re right?” (although I want to ask that too) — but “What would you accept as evidence that this conspiracy really didn’t happen?”

And if the answer is, “Nothing — any evidence against this conspiracy would simply bolster my belief in it”… then I say once again: That is one lousy theory. It doesn’t even deserve the honorable name of “theory.” And you shouldn’t expect anyone else to take it seriously.

Also in this series:
What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith

Offended: The Blowfish Blog

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about a piece of sexual expression that deeply offended me… and what I intend to do about it.

It’s called Offended, and here’s the teaser:

He (William F. Buckley) said that a society has the right to decide what it’s offended by… and to protect itself from that which offends it. And at one point he said — I’m going to have to paraphrase here, since I erased the Tivo before I realized I wanted to write about it — that a society can look at sadomasochistic imagery, and at the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and say, “We don’t want this.”

And I was so offended by this statement, it took my breath away.

I don’t mean mock offended. I don’t mean “offended as a useful rhetorical device” offended. I was genuinely, seriously, viscerally offended. I wanted to reach into the television and smack him across his smug little rat face. I sat there, shocked, thinking, “Did he just go on national television and equate consensual sadomasochism with Nazi Germany?”

How dare he.

How fucking dare he.

It is, in my opinion, grossly outrageous to equate a sex act between consenting adults that gives them both pleasure with the deliberate genocide of millions. It’s not just offensive to sadomasochists. It’s offensive to people who went through the Holocaust. It dehumanizes the one, and trivializes the other. It was one of the most offensive things I’d heard all month.

And yet at no point in my outrage did I think, “There oughta be a law. He shouldn’t be allowed to do that. There oughta be a law against equating sadomasochism and the Holocaust.”

Why not?

To find out more, read the rest of the the piece. Enjoy!